How Much Description
Does Your Book Need?

I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall. —  Eleanor Roosevelt

By PJ Parrish

Of all the things writers have to worry about, you wouldn’t think description would be at the top of the list. Yet I can’t tell you how many times this has come up in all the workshops I’ve done over the decades. The questions!

How much description do I need? How should I describe my main charcter? Did I spent too much time describing the haunted mansion? Should I describe the weather?  Speaking of weather, Elmore Leonard doesn’t have description. Why can’t I just leave it out like he does?

As someone who loves to describe stuff, I think of description is just one potent ingredient that goes into the alchemy of a great book. But “potent” is the operative word here. Too little and you’re missing a chance to emotionally connect with readers. Too much and you’re risking them skipping over your hard-wrought pages.

Where’s the sweet spot?

Some writers are renowned for revelling in description.

“Then the sun broke above the crest of the hills and the entire countryside looked soaked in blood, the arroyos deep in shadow, the cones of dead volcanoes stark and biscuit-colored against the sky. I could smell pinion trees, wet sage, woodsmoke, cattle in the pastures, and creek water that had melted from snow. I could smell the way the country probably was when it was only a dream in the mind of God.”  ― James Lee Burke, Jesus Out to Sea

Some writers opt for none. I had to leaf through five of my Elmore paperbacks until I found something that came close to description. From Mr. Paradise.

They’d made their entrance, the early after-work crowd still looking, speculating, something they did each time the two came in. Not showgirls. More like fashion models: designer casual wool coats, oddball pins, scarves, big leather belts, definitely not bimbos. They could be sisters, tall, the same type, the same nose jobs, both remembered as blonds, their hair cropped short. Today they wore hats, each a knit cloche down on her eyes, and sunglasses. It was April in Detroit, snow predicted.

In his dedication for Freaky Deaky Leonard thanked his wife for giving him “a certain look when I write too many words.” And we all have memorized nos. 8 and 9 from his (in)famous Ten Rules For Writing:

  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

I can almost hear some of you out there mumbling, “Okay, but this doesn’t help me. What do I describe and how much do I need?”  I’ll try to help. But let’s have some fun first. Quiz time! Can you name the characters being described in these famous novels? Answers at end.

  1. He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate’s appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled.
  2. [His] jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
  3. He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.
  4. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished — and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.
  5. Her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever.
  6. [He] was utterly white and smooth, as if he were sculpted from bleached bone, and his face was as seemingly inanimate as a statue, except for two brilliant green eyes that looked down at the boy intently like flames in a skull.
  7. [He] had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.

Back to work. First of all, I come down on the pro side of description. As I said, it is one of the potent tools in your craft box. When done well, it creates atmosphere and mood, sets a scene, and gives your reader a context to the world you are asking them to enter. It also helps your readers emotionally bond with your characters, having them see, feel, hear and smell the story.

But I get why so many writers, especially beginners, get frustrated with description. Dialogue — good and bad — sort of spools itself out. Action scenes have a certain momentum that keeps the writerly juices flowing. But when you have to pause and face that blank page and come up with describing the scene or person in your head — well, it’s like trying to speak a foreign language. It get that. I really do.

Here’s the thing I have learned: Only describe the stuff that is necessary for readers to understand and connect to your story. Example: Your character walks into a room. If UNDERSTANDING THE ROOM SENSORILY adds to your story, then yes, you have to describe it. If not, don’t. Consider this example:

John opened the door and walked into the room. The smell hit him — decaying flesh but with a weird undernote of…what was that? Pine trees? The pale December light seeped around the edges of yellowed window shades and at first he couldn’t make out anything. Then details swam into focus — an old coiled bed frame heaped with dirty blankets. And suspended above the bed, hundreds of slips of paper. No, not just paper. Little paper Christmas trees. No, not…then he recognized the pine smell. It was coming from the air fresheners, those things people hung on their rearview mirrors. The heap of blankets on the bed…he moved closer. It was a body. Or what was left of one.

I made that up, basing it on a scene from the movie Seven where cops Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman discover a corpse. Love this movie…

Writing this scene in a thriller, of course you have to describe it. You filter it through the characters’ senses so the reader can experience the horror.

Now, if Brad and Morgan were just walking into any room, that had no SENSORY bearing on your plot, you’d write:

They entered the room. Bare bones furniture overlaid with dust. A quick scan told them it was empty, no sign anyone had lived in the place for a long time. Another dead end.

See the difference? Describe, but only when it makes a difference.

So where is your sweet spot? I can’t answer that. Like any skill, it’s something you have to practice, play with, and fine tune. It also is part of your style. Your way of describing things should be singular to you. You can watch that scene from Seven and your way of describing it should be completely different than mine.

One last point before we go. The biggest mistake writers make when describing is being overly reliant on sight. Be aware, when you the writer enter a scene, that you do it with sensory logic. Always consider the sequence of the senses. Smell is often the first thing you notice. Sound might be the primary thing triggered.  Sight is rarely the first sense to connect.

One more quick example from one of my favorite authors. I love how Joyce Carol Oates uses smell to open her description of the one-room schoolhouse she attended as a child in rural New York:

Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie, the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by ceiling lights. We squinted at the blackboard, that seemed far away since it was on a small platform, where Mrs. Dietz’s desk was also positioned, at the front, left of the room. We sat in rows of seats, smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse chestnuts. The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship.

So, Oates is leading the reader into the room. Note the PROGRESSION of senses: First, you smell varnish and wood smoke. Next, you become aware of the quality of the light — gauzy from the windows and ceiling lights. Only then does Oates move to sight, and even then we have to squint to bring the scene into focus. Take note, too, of the small telling details she uses that make us build an image-painting of this room in our imaginations — desks in a row like a toboggan, old wood like horse chestnuts, and the one I love because I can remember it — paper squares of perfect Parker Penmanship.

Answers to quiz:

  1. Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind
  2. Sam Spade The Maltese Falcon
  3. Billy Pilgrim, Slaughterhouse Five
  4. Jay Gatsby The Great Gatsby
  5. Lestat Interview With The Vampire
  6. Harry Potter. The Sorcerer’s Stone.
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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

22 thoughts on “How Much Description
Does Your Book Need?

  1. Really good stuff here, Kris. I noticed a couple of things as I read through your examples, which are, perforce, causing a couple of “tips” to coalesce.

    The first is that if you have one good, unique, striking detail, put it in and get out of the way. Don’t gild the lily. Vonnegut’s “shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola” is an example of that. Boom. Let it stand alone.
    Now notice that in #4, Fitzgerald, there is NO concrete detail! Nothing about color or shape or smell. The whole thing is the impression Gatsby makes on the narrator, Nick…the feeling he gets from Gatsby, and that feeling is transferred by the prose to us.
    So either strategy can work, as long as it is what the POV character would notice or think.
    Thanks for getting my brain chugging this morning.

    • Good points. I had a whole section in my post about over-describing. But it was running too long so off it went. But that is another cardinal rule — don’t gild the lily. One or maybe two great telling details is usually far superior. I tend to overdo it on first drafts, so I am always going back and paring, paring, paring.

      Second, re Nick’s POV — I was skimming looking for descriptions in Gatsby and ran out of time looking for a better one. Wanted one of Daisy but never happened upon one. Just now I remembered this one:

      “Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…”

      Two descriptions in one from TWO POVs: First Gatsy says the money line then Nick amplifies it. Question: Is that gilding the lily?

      • I think because this is all “how it feels” description, it’s not gilding but building. I am loving these…I’ve never been a fan of the novel, from a plot perspective, and I’ve read it at least three times. I always compare it (unfavorably) to The Maltese Falcon. The latter is better for high school reader, IMO. But after today I may have to give ol’ Scott another chance…

  2. Kris, wonderful tips. I have to work on that skill of sensory logic–what a great term! Describing sensations in the right order really helps the reader fully experience a scene. When the logic is in the wrong order, something feels off, even if the reader can’t put their finger on why.

    As a reader, I tend to skip over descriptions unless the author really captures the essence of a character or location. As a writer, I’m a minimalist.

    When describing a character, I try to choose only a couple of details that are startling, make a strong impression, or show the character’s personality rather than simply driver’s license info.

    For settings, I only include enough to allow the reader orient themselves in the location or set the mood. Descriptions that detail every nail hole in the wallpaper are boring.

    • The only time I ever described wallpaper was when a cop, scoping an old mansion where a murder had taken place 20 years ago, notices that the faded old wallpaper has odd brighter small rectangles. He surmises, correctly, that someone had removed things that had once hung there. (the sun had bleached out the paper around them). What once hung there was a gun collection. And the weapon was there — or at least, its ghost was.

  3. Wonderful post.

    Se7en is one of my all-time favorite movies. Everything comes together perfectly: visuals, characters, dialogue, action, plot, and theme.

    I’m not a seasoned author. I have no authority to speak on the subject other than being an experienced reader. Let’s conduct an experiment. Let’s assume the hypothetical average word count for a crime novel is 90,000 words. Now, if you keep descriptions to a minimum, how will you manage to reach that quota? Splurge on dialogue? On action? On introspection?

    This is the potential issue in the advice to cut down on description. It can have unintended consequences. If you tone description down, something’s got to give. Some other aspect(s) must gain prominence to make up for the descriptive minimalism. And that might just fundamentally change the overall flavor and balance of the novel.

    Great prose. Great prose buys you an awful lot of tolerance from me

    • Yes, that’s a valid point about a novel’s length. Because in our genre, there are some expectations about length. Too short? I had an editor tell me one of our manuscripts was. So I had to go back in and judiciously look for places where I had been too lean. It wasn’t description (because I tend to overdo that and have to pare it down in rewrites). I realized I had not paid close enough attention to a very juicy subplot and also had underwritten a secondary character.

  4. I confess I failed your test, although I have read many of the books. Part because my brain doesn’t hold on to much anymore, and partly, I fear, because I skim descriptions when I read, which is probably why mine are sparse in my writing as well.
    But … I do try to use more than sight. This from my upcoming novel, Deadly Adversaries:
    Gordon made his way to the nearby alcove that housed the center’s walk-in refrigerator and freezer. After delivering the wine to the reception area, he opted to take advantage of the restroom before he’d have to say his few words.

    He ducked into the short hallway and tugged the recalcitrant door open, immediately overcome by the engulfing stench. Either the plumbing had backed up—not for the first time—or someone had serious digestive issues.

    The blood spreading from under the stall door offered a third possibility.

    And yes, to keeping descriptions true to the character. In Deadly Production, My cop is sizing up a woman he’s been asked to meet:

    “… Brown eyes outlined in black, shiny brown lids, and eyelashes that almost brushed the lenses of her rectangular black-rimmed glasses. A pert upturned nose that didn’t match the rest of the Mediterranean appearance. After-market, he surmised.”

    • See, your example of the cop going into the bathroom is a perfect illustration of correct sensory progression. Yeah, the blood is the most important thing but he wouldn’t see it before he smelled the odor. And you didn’t, correctly, waste time describe stuff before that! Too many writers would feel compelled to describe the alcove.

      Love the description of the woman!

  5. Great post, Kris. Thanks for the discussion of sensory logic and progression of senses.

    You asked the question, “Where’s the sweet spot?” I wonder if this varies by genre. And it certainly varies with each reader. When I started a fantasy series for middle grades and teens, I used beta readers extensively. The girls complained that my books didn’t include enough description, in fact lectured me. The boys wanted more action.

    You mentioned Style as part of what description establishes for each writer. In Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, her extensive descriptions also establish voice of the writer and a look inside her main character Kinsey Millhone.

    Thanks for the quiz. I flunked.

    • Yeah, the quiz is hard. I tried to find easier examples. Thought for sure you guys would have cued in on Rhett. 🙂 I love the one of Sam Spade because it is sooooo long and it comes on the first page of the book. It breaks the rules. Yet the description sets up the whole twisted morality of the book.

  6. Different genres have different reader expectations. A police procedural uses a lot less description than a romance novel. Romances are the most lush genre.

    Except for omniscient viewpoint that isn’t used in genre these days, you are filtering description through the viewpoint character so what’s most important to the character is most important to the reader. A policeman entering a room where a perp is hiding has a very different definition of what is important than an interior decorator checking out her rival’s newest project.

    Brain science. The reason a person is reading your story instead of watching visual media is that story and description connect with special parts of the brains. Being there through words hits a lot of pleasure receptors. And not just visual words. All the five senses are needed.

    • Exactly re using all the senses. And you’re right about genre and sub-genre expectations. Some police procedurals are very lean, and it works fine. (Lee Child comes to mind; Connelly on other hand, can surprise with some pretty detailed and lengthy description). Kent Krueger is known for his lush setting descriptions. I was reading one of Lehane’s early books and was surprised by how much attention he pays to description. (His later books, ie Live By Night, are quite lush).

  7. Gosh, I love descriptive writing. “Old wood like horse chestnuts” really struck a chord. Thanks for an amazing post today, Kris.

    And your description of Se7en rocks! Yours is more filtered through the character than the others.

  8. Kris, after reading the character descriptions in your post, I realize I need to spend more time on descriptive passages in my work. (The only one I recognized was Sam Spade — who could forget the description with all the v’s and the “blond satan”?)

    I tend to write lean with just enough information that the reader can form their own image. Here’s a snippet from Lacey’s Star when Cassie meets Sheriff Easterly in a western Nevada town:

    “I’m Ryan Easterly,” he said as he offered his hand. His voice had a kind of high, whiny pitch to it, and his face came to a point at the end of a nose that reminded me of a weasel. His small, dark eyes behind rimless glasses darted back and forth among us as we shook hands. He wasn’t even wearing cowboy boots.

    • I see nothing wrong with that description. Seems just about right. I think when it comes to character descriptions, most readers prefer a lighter touch. Just an opinion…

  9. Kris, your Seven example was terrific. I know the movie by heart, but your prose was so great I wanted to read more to find out what was happening.

    • Aw thanks Rose! Your comment got me curious, wondering if Seven was based on a book. Twasn’t. It’s a script by Andrew Kevin Walker. But the movie was subsequently novelized by Anthony Bruno and published in 1995. Would be interesting to read the descriptions.

  10. I’m Jekyll and Hyde on description. I love it in books, but it’s an area I need to work on in my writing (I feel I’m too sparse on description). My favorite genre is historical, and the reason I like it is because I want to be swept away to that place and time. If the author doesn’t do a good job of description, I stay firmly stuck in the present, which is a bummer.

    One of the fondest memories of my life is growing up reading the westerns of Zane Grey. By the same token, in those growing up years, we weren’t distracted and attention deficit with social media and a million other “Squirrel!” distractions. So I confess lengthy description is harder to read in present day. But well chosen description is so crucial to a good read.

    • Ditto on historicals and description. I also like to wallow in it. Like in Follett’s cathedral-building books. With thrillers, however, not so much. But if the description is TOO sparse, I feel let down. It’s a Goldilocks thing: has to be just right.

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